Friday, April 6, 2012

GUARANTEED TO THRILL: A review of Seijun Suzuki's BRANDED TO KILL

[7-8-2010]


BRANDED TO KILL is the only movie you'll ever find where a steaming rice cooker will scare the crap out of you.

This 1967 action movie from Nikkatsu Studios is nominally the product of writer Hachiro Guryu, but refracted through the viewfinder of director Seijun Suzuki, it becomes a terrifying, perverse, erotic and hilarious side step into madness.

Hitman Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the third ranked hired killer in the Yakuza, a fact which is related to the viewer with such persistence that you just know we're eventually going to run into Ichi and Ni along the way.

Hanada is an absolutely mad bastard who requires the smell of cooking rice in order to get aroused enough to have kinky sex with his equally crazy wife. And, since they are such a loving couple, at some point, they get to shoot each other. At this point you're probably wondering what the hell is going on.

But then things get really, REALLY cool.

After a series of assassinations that are both incredibly surreal and ridiculously inspired (and which I won't spoil here - just remember the words "hot air balloon"), Hanada is hired by mystery woman Misako to kill a foreigner.

Which is where things get REALLY weird...

You'll have to see the film to find out what's what(?!?) but of all the cool insane, inane stuff that happens in this amazing flick, it's the scenes with Misako that really stand out.

Actress Annu Mari has the benefit of looking like Sixties horror icon Barbara Steele and possesses the creepy talent to hood her eyes like a hawk. That stare, combined with her unnerving ability to avoid the rules of cinematic continuity make Misako one of the most otherworldly, sexy and scary femmes fatales I've ever seen.

Her most memorable sequence comes early, when she picks up Hanada on the side of a rain-drenched road in the middle of the night. The fact that she is driving a sports car with no roof is the first sign of trouble, since it's raining. Heavily. Then there's the fact that she immediately states that she "hates men." And the fact that she never blinks as the rain runs into and over her eyes. Not to mention the dead bird with a needle through its heart that hangs from the rearview mirror. One good point in her favor is that she obeys the rules of the road, never taking her eyes off her driving while continuing to mutter ominous sounding non-sequiturs.

The combination of Maru and rain is not lost on director Suzuki, who continues to repeat the same composition of Misako staring straight into the camera with a heavy downpour behind her.

Of course it makes no sense when she's talking to Hanada in his apartment, but it's so effective it doesn't really matter.

You may have noticed an ongoing trend with this review... 

...this film is absolutely bonkers.

In fact it's so visually and technically 'interesting' that you could be forgiven for thinking you'd fallen asleep halfway through the movie.

Critics and audiences didn't bother to fall asleep - they stayed away in droves. In fact the financial and critical failure of BRANDED TO KILL was so complete Suzuki's contract with Nikkatsu was broken and he wasn't able to make another film for the next ten years.

Today, as is so often the case with old genre oddities, BRANDED TO KILL is regarded as a masterpiece of absurdist cinema, numbering Chan-wook Park, Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch among its admirers.

Suzuki has always claimed the reason the film is so unique is the fact that he was bored with constantly making yakuza movies and decided to have a little fun. Indeed.

As well as it's incredible weirdness BRANDED TO KILL still (kinda) works as a yakuza movie, and remains a hugely entertaining thrill ride, with some very unique takes on traditional action movie shoot outs and car chases.

Filled with oblique set pieces, discontinuous editing, some gorgeous chiaroscuro photography and an absolutely kickass jazz score, BRANDED TO KILL is guaranteed to deliver on whatever level you like.

If you're a fan of film noir, action movies, David Lynch AND Japanese genre movies, give this gem a go!

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